The Rumpus Interview with Ravi Shankar


I met co-editors Ravi Shankar and Alvin Pang in New Haven, at a public discussion of their recent anthology, Union: 15 Years of Drunken Boat, 50 Years of Writing from Singapore (Ethos Books and Drunken Boat, 2015). Inspired by their global perspective (they talked about their travels to poetry festivals in India and Nicaragua), and by the collaborative nature of three recent books, I asked Ravi for an interview. He was planning a trip to a poetry festival in Vietnam, and Alvin was headed back to his home country of Singapore. I had to act quickly. Within a few days, Ravi sent me three books of his to read. They included Union, the anthology of Singaporean writing; What Else Could It Be: Ekphrastics and Collaborations (Carolina Wren Press: Poetry Series Seventeen, 2015), and Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess, translated and edited by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar (Zubaan Publishers, New Delhi, 2015). Ravi came down to meet me at ArtsWestchester, in White Plains, New York.


The Rumpus: Can you tell me how the anthology, Union, came to be published, in print?

Ravi Shankar: Drunken Boat [of which Ravi is the editor] is one of the first literary magazines to be published in digital format. And while a lot of poetry is published that way now, poets can move print runs up to the thousands in Singapore. Alvin was really helpful, because when DB began such a vast undertaking and decided to publish poetry from Central Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia, we of course couldn’t be experts in all of those regions. We had to find translators, arts organizations, and people who could help us know what was happening in the world of contemporary poetry in their particular countries. Alvin was that person from Singapore. We became friends and I invited him to curate a folio for DB on contemporary Singaporean literature. In the course of doing that there was so much work that we couldn’t include, and it just so happened that the fifteen-year anniversary of DB coincided with the fifty-year anniversary of the Singaporean national congress. They’re odd bedfellows—a literary journal and a sovereign nation state—and yet we wanted to do something to celebrate this momentous occasion. Why not try to put together this book that traces the threads? Singaporean literature is localized and comes from four distinctive traditions; English language, Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay. Yet it’s also influenced by being exposed to American literature and international literature so we thought that by bringing together the work we’ve done at DB alongside the Singaporean work, we could create interesting resonances.

Rumpus: Your own family from is from the Tamil language group, right?

Shankar: That’s right.

Rumpus: Are you very connected to that culture and is that one of the reasons for your interest in Singapore?

Shankar: Yes, well, Tamil is my mother tongue. It’s the first language that I grew up speaking, and that will relate to the next project I’m going to tell you about [Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess]. I had been to Singapore a handful of times and had the wildly disconcerting experience of being in the subway when all of a sudden I heard this voice that sounded like my Tamil grandmother! In fact, I probably didn’t really recognize it because I didn’t understand yet how Singaporean society is truly polyglot. That’s another way that I think both American and Singaporean culture can mutually learn from each other. One of the things I love about Singaporean culture—though I’m sure there is this dark despotic underside probably— there is also this embrace of multiculturalism and it’s a multilingual society. When you go into the subway the announcements are made in all four languages. So you’ll hear it in English and maybe in Malay. What if we embraced our Spanish language the way the Singaporeans do [with their languages]? What a different place America would be. Another thing about Singapore—and I mention this in my intro—they have become a “post-blurb” society.

Rumpus: Would you like to talk about that?

Shankar: So, when we were putting this book together we were talking about who we should ask to blurb it. This particular book is co-published by a Singaporean press. DB is distributed in America and Ethos is distributed in Asia. The publisher there said “You know, in Singapore we’ve moved away from blurbs. We find that they don’t say very much. They’re an indication of this celebrity culture and our readership doesn’t need someone to tell them why they should buy a book. They’re more interested in a description of what’s in there.” There’s something disingenuous about the entire blurb economy. I thought this was refreshing.

Rumpus: Yes. This reminds me of the interesting collaborations across genres that I’ve seen recently—interactive improvisations of music, dance, and words. People from separate groups become one group, for that performance only. It’s kind of nice to get away from the exclusivity of celebrity draw. But I was wondering whether something is lost in the process of collaboration, particularly in this book? What can you tell me about the loss of the voice as we cross all of these borders? For example, there is a poem that is inspired by Allen Ginsberg in Union. It’s got so much in it that it is not so identifiable as something that is Singaporean, yet it is said to be representing a Singaporean voice. Can you talk about the effect that crossing borders and merging has on a sense of distinct and unique culture?

Shankar: What the book perhaps points to is the emergence of a more global consciousness. So while a lot of the poems are still inflected with the experiences and culture of a particular place and time they are also porous enough to allow for the influence of all of these other things. Somewhere in the intro it says that some of this is like the Black Mountain school filtered through the Malay peninsula. I love that there is this new way— especially in this new generation of Singaporean writers after British colonialism— that they are starting to study in English and write in English. Some of the earliest works of Singaporean writing in English is a pastiche and a re-writing of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land. So this notion of looking in another direction, looking West for influence and yet taking that and not just imitating it but transforming it into something particular I think is at the root of that. I personally think that nationalism is a kind of disease and you know I think the fact that we all share this planet together and that there is this undeniable bond that is prior to our identification with a particular form of government or language is much more interesting to me than saying well you’re only this and you’re only that.

At Drunken Boat, explicitly and implicitly throughout the years, we’ve been interested in this kind of diversity and have published Native American poets, women poets, for example, and ethnopoetics issues where we had poetry from around the world. That probably comes from my own experience of being bi-cultural, growing up with two distinctive cultures feeling at home like I was a Tamilian Brahmin who was eating dosas and South Indian food and going to temple and then having my education in northern Virginia and going to school playing Pac-Man and hot rods and all that. The feeling for me when I was growing up was a sense of alienation, but now I find that I was pretty lucky to have both really rich and distinctive cultures to draw an identity from. I think personally I’ve always felt that I don’t fit in any one place; I’m in transit and kind of nomadic, and I think that my interests in collaboration have mirrored that in some way.

Rumpus: Can you talk about Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess? You were referring to that earlier.

Shankar: This is a book of translations, and it was also a collaborative project. Priya Sarukkai Chabri is this very interesting Indian poet and novelist (who I met at a festival years ago) who in fact was the first South Asian woman to write a work of science fiction. She wrote this book called Generation 14 but she’s also worked with photographers and dancers, and in fact her sister is a very famous Indian dancer and it so happens that we both speak Tamil, that’s my mother tongue as well. When I was growing up I went to a lot of Hindu temples where much of the liturgy was in Sanskrit. I went to a lot of South Indian weddings and my mother would sing me ancient excerpts from the Vedas. Even when I couldn’t understand it—I don’t really know Sanskrit— I heard the language since I was very young and I feel like it’s almost part of my bloodstream. I almost have a homophonic relationship with the language that has shaped my own music in English in some way. But anyway, Priya and I were talking about South Indian weddings and these Tamilian weddings where they often recite the verses of Andal who is this ninth century Tamil poet/saint. She wrote poems that they still recite today.

Andal composed all of her work before the age of fourteen or fifteen. It was ninth century so life expectancy was different. The other thing about her work is that It’s really sensual and transgressive in a way. She’s a bhakti poet.

In Hindu mythology Krishna was known as the Hindi flute-playing god. Andal is in that tradition, but she’s writing on the precipice of becoming a woman, so her poems are paradoxically very sensual and corporeal and yet what she’s longing for is something transcendent and spiritual. So she basically said she didn’t want to have any mortal lover; she wanted the divine for her lover. She left behind this fascinating body of work. So Priya and I worked together. The work was composed in Chen Tamil, or classical and literary Tamil, which is the equivalent of Old English and even though I speak Tamil, Chen Tamil is a different thing and we had to work with a scholar in South India where these poems are preserved on palm leaves. We did a rudimentary translation and then worked on a colloquial idiom.

The more I learned about Andal, the more I learned that she is worshiped to this very day in India as a goddess. Yet she lived in the ninth century! I won’t go into her life story, although it’s really interesting— but ultimately Priya and I decided to translate her work. This is why people think of her as the South Indian Mirabai.

Are you familiar with Mirabai? She’s a mystic poet from North India and she’s really well known here in part because Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield wrote a book of translations of her work. Mirabai was very much from the Raj courts, so much of the imagery in her poetry elicit a world of jewelry and diamonds and gold, even though she’s a mystic poet. Andal, on the other hand, comes from this very small village and the legend goes that she was born into the household of this Alvar saint—you know in India, Hinduism is so complicated

Vaishnavite tradition comes out of the worship of Vishnu. Andal wrote this work before her marriage to Vishnu. There are these twelve Alvar saints and all of them are male except for this one, Andal, who is female. Her father, Perialwar (or the elder Alvar), was also one of these saints. It is said that Andal was a foundling, so like in the story of Moses, Perialwar found her and raised her as his own daughter. He was the Pujari, the person who did all of the religious rituals in this small village. Have you ever been to a Hindu temple?

Rumpus: Once, I was in India and it seemed like the whole Ganges was a temple. People were bathing and carrying out rituals. Elsewhere, there was a shrine on every corner, where people painted rocks and offered flowers to gods and goddesses. I almost couldn’t tell if I was in a temple or not.

Shankar: Yeah, It’s very syncretic, these cultures. Hinduism refers to a number of distinctive traditions that are sometimes competing. For example, I am a Tamilian Brahman, so I come from a tradition that is vegetarian.

Rumpus: That‘s why I got you a lunch that is vegetarian. But may I ask, since you come from a tradition that is Brahmin, what made you identify so closely with the people who are particularly not Brahmin?

Shankar: Well, I think that the caste system is a form of institutionalized racism. I don’t buy into it in any way, and I think that there’s a sense of purity that the strongest things are built from disparate materials. My girls are really smart and beautiful and their mother is not Indian. But I did come from, as my mother would often tell me, hundreds of generations of pure Tamil breeding; this is what she would say when she wanted me to have, as she did, an arranged marriage, which was not going to happen. There is an insularity that I resisted with that and a superiority as well. It’s no better than an Aryan thinking that he’s better because of his birthright and blond hair and blue eyes. That was something that was never appealing to me. That being said, Tamilian and Brahmin tradition have produced some really amazing works of art and science throughout history. I’m proud of that part of my heritage even as I find the other part of it that puts down people really repugnant.

Rumpus: That brings me to the poem in the ekphrastic collection, “Algorithm, Will You Dance?” It is just great. I understand that it is a poem where you put your lines into Google translate and asked it to translate from English into Arabic. Then you took the Arabic and put it into Google translate and had it translate it back. The result was nothing remotely related to the original text. Tell me your feeling is about that. What is the message?

Shankar: Well, for that poem, I took twelve lines and I sent them out to the other writers. I said take these twelve lines and use them as you wish, in a poem. [All of the poems in What Else Could It Be: Ekphrastics and Collaborations are responses to this prompt or Shankar’s responses to other works of art.] I believe in all kinds of different translations. I actually ask my students to do homo-linguistic translations from English to English because we are constantly negotiating changes in diction, depending upon who we’re talking to. We tell a story very differently depending upon whether we’re talking to a child or our parents. In doing these collaborations with writers I wanted to also do this collaboration with Google, which is a really pervasive force in all of our lives. My students now can’t even imagine writing without a search engine to look things up and when I’m writing it’s so convenient to plug something in and come back with information. The language feature is obviously really imperfect in a lot of ways, so I thought that doing this would underscore the ways in which we can misinterpret but also kind of see interesting linguistic vistas that open. It’s almost like a game of telephone. Something is lost in that process but I think that something is gained.

Rumpus: What do you think is gained?

Shankar: Well, I think that partly there are these really fascinating verbal constructions. I think that part of it might be that we have different idioms in different languages that are fascinating. I was just talking to a friend who was telling me about l’esprit d’escalier, something you say when someone says something to you and you think of the perfect comeback that apparently comes from the spirit of the staircase, when you’re leaving the party and going down the stairs. I love that there are untranslatable idioms and parts of speech and doing this points that out. But also for me, I find that I don’t want to be static as an artist and I think that I have certain tendencies. I was also trained in science and math and I like this geometric precision in my lines. Doing something in Google Translate lets me rough up the edges of my language and allows for these unexpected transformations to happen, transformations that I am too controlled to allow sometimes on my own but that I want in there in some way. So yeah. I think it’s so interesting that through an algorithm you can change something in another language and then change it back.

Rumpus: Can you talk more about ekphrasis, and what it is and how it is evolving?

Shankar: I think ekphrastic poetry is really in vogue in a certain way. It tends be a description of what a writer sees when they look at a painting. For me, true acts of ekphrasis engage not just with what’s in the picture but in the materiality of the object and the density of the paint and the artist’s life and the brushstroke and what you bring to the painting.

Rumpus: You did that in the poem “Untitled (1958),” based on a Rothko painting. The poem looks like a Rothko painting in the way it is shaped. It is written in blocks and the content of each block is a description of color. You use concrete poetry and modify your form to engage with Rothko’s form. Also the poem, “Movements”, about Merce Cunningham, is written in the way he danced. His very irregular movement is mimicked in the lines. I loved those poems and felt they communicated.

Shankar: More. I think I was trying for example, in the the Hopper poem, “Sea Watchers;” he was a very representational painter, so my poem was very narrative. Someone like Chagall is more playful and circling—almost magical realist in its own way—so I wanted my language to mirror that.

Rumpus: It must have been exciting to do that, and to unearth these ancient words and stories. What a wonderful experience.

Shankar: Yes, it made me feel in touch with my heritage in a profound way because I think when I was growing up it was something I wanted to run from. I wanted to assimilate and fit in and now I see there is so much there and I am lucky I have access to that. In each of these very different projects, I’ve wanted to embrace that diversity, acknowledging that my own existence is shaped by these different linguistic and cultural collaborations.

Ann van Buren lives in the Hudson River Valley, New York, where she works as a poet, educator, and activist. She is a graduate of Columbia University and holds a master’s degree in writing from New York University. She teaches poetry workshops in the U.S. and Europe. Ann’s work has been published by The Westchester Review, The Blue Door Gallery, THE, Santa Fe’s monthly magazine, and other journals. Her poetry book reviews can be found in The Rumpus. More from this author →